What NOT to Do When Beginning Your Novel: Advice from Literary Agents

photo by kirstyhall

GIVEAWAY: I am very excited to again give away a free book to a random commenter. The winner can choose either CREATE YOUR WRITER PLATFORM or the 2013 GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS. Commenters must live in the US/Canada; comment within one week to win. Good luck! (Update: Anita Hayes won.)

In a previous Writer Unboxed column, I discussed the value of starting your story strong and how an “inside-out” approach to narrative action can help your case. But just as important as knowing what to do when beginning your novel is knowing what not to do.

No one reads more prospective novel beginnings than literary agents. They’re the ones on the front lines — sifting through inboxes and slush piles. And they’re the ones who can tell us which Chapter 1 approaches are overused and cliche, as well as which techniques just plain don’t work. Below find a smattering of feedback from experienced literary agents on what they hate to see the first pages of a writer’s submission. Avoid these problems and tighten your submission!

FALSE BEGINNINGS

“I don’t like it when the main character dies at the end of Chapter 1. Why did I just spend all this time with this character? I feel cheated.”
Cricket Freeman, The August Agency

“I dislike opening scenes that you think are real, then the protagonist wakes up. It makes me feel cheated.”
Laurie McLean, Foreword Literary

IN SCIENCE FICTION

“A sci-fi novel that spends the first two pages describing the strange landscape.”
Chip MacGregor, MacGregor Literary

PROLOGUES

“I’m not a fan of prologues, preferring to find myself in the midst of a moving plot on page 1 rather than being kept outside of it, or eased into it.”
Michelle Andelman, Regal Literary

“Most agents hate prologues. Just make the first chapter relevant and well written.”
Andrea Brown, Andrea Brown Literary Agency

“Prologues are usually a lazy way to give back-story chunks to the reader and can be handled with more finesse throughout the story. Damn the prologue, full speed ahead!”
Laurie McLean, Foreword Literary

EXPOSITION/DESCRIPTION

“Perhaps my biggest pet peeve with an opening chapter is when an author features too much exposition – when they go beyond what is necessary for simply ‘setting the scene.’ I want to feel as if I’m in the hands of a master storyteller, and starting a story with long, flowery, overly-descriptive sentences (kind of like this one) makes the writer seem amateurish and the story contrived. Of course, an equally jarring beginning can be nearly as off-putting, and I hesitate to read on if I’m feeling disoriented by the fifth page. I enjoy when writers can find a good balance between exposition and mystery. Too much accounting always ruins the mystery of a novel, and the unknown is what propels us to read further.”
Peter Miller, PMA Literary and Film Management

“The [adjective] [adjective] sun rose in the [adjective] [adjective] sky, shedding its [adjective] light across the [adjective] [adjective] [adjective] land.”
Chip MacGregor, MacGregor Literary

“I dislike endless ‘laundry list’ character descriptions. For example: ‘She had eyes the color of a summer sky and long blonde hair that fell in ringlets past her shoulders. Her petite nose was the perfect size for her heart-shaped face. Her azure dress—with the empire waist and long, tight sleeves—sported tiny pearl buttons down the bodice. Ivory lace peeked out of the hem in front, blah, blah.’ Who cares! Work it into the story.”
Laurie McLean, Foreword Literary

STARTING TOO SLOW

“Characters that are moving around doing little things, but essentially nothing. Washing dishes & thinking, staring out the window & thinking, tying shoes, thinking.”
Dan Lazar, Writers House

“I don’t really like ‘first day of school’ beginnings, ‘from the beginning of time,’ or ‘once upon a time.’ Specifically, I dislike a Chapter 1 in which nothing happens.”
Jessica Regel, Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency

IN CRIME FICTION

“Someone squinting into the sunlight with a hangover in a crime novel. Good grief — been done a million times.”
Chip MacGregor, MacGregor Literary

IN FANTASY

“Cliché openings in fantasy can include an opening scene set in a battle (and my peeve is that I don’t know any of the characters yet so why should I care about this battle) or with a pastoral scene where the protagonist is gathering herbs (I didn’t realize how common this is).”
Kristin Nelson, Nelson Literary

VOICE

“I know this may sound obvious, but too much ‘telling’ vs. ‘showing’ in the first chapter is a definite warning sign for me. The first chapter should present a compelling scene, not a road map for the rest of the book. The goal is to make the reader curious about your characters, fill their heads with questions that must be answered, not fill them in on exactly where, when, who and how.”
Emily Sylvan Kim, Prospect Agency

“I hate reading purple prose – describing something so beautifully that has nothing to do with the actual story.”
Cherry Weiner, Cherry Weiner Literary

“A cheesy hook drives me nuts. They say ‘Open with a hook!’ to grab the reader. That’s true, but there’s a fine line between an intriguing hook and one that’s just silly. An example of a silly hook would be opening with a line of overtly sexual dialogue.”
Daniel Lazar, Writers House

“I don’t like an opening line that’s ‘My name is…,’ introducing the narrator to the reader so blatantly. There are far better ways in Chapter 1 to establish an instant connection between narrator and reader.”
Michelle Andelman, Regal Literary

“Sometimes a reasonably good writer will create an interesting character and describe him in a compelling way, but then he’ll turn out to be some unimportant bit player.”
Ellen Pepus, Signature Literary Agency

IN ROMANCE

“In romance, I can’t stand this scenario: A woman is awakened to find a strange man in her bedroom—and then automatically finds him attractive. I’m sorry, but if I awoke to a strange man in my bedroom, I’d be reaching for a weapon—not admiring the view.”
Kristin Nelson, Nelson Literary Agency

IN A CHRISTIAN NOVEL

“A rape scene in a Christian novel in the first chapter.”
Chip MacGregor, MacGregor Literary

CHARACTERS AND BACKSTORY

“I don’t like descriptions of the characters where writers make them too perfect. Heroines (and heroes) who are described physically as being virtually unflawed come across as unrelatable and boring. No ‘flowing, wind-swept golden locks’; no ‘eyes as blue as the sky’; no ‘willowy, perfect figures.’ ”
Laura Bradford, Bradford Literary Agency

“Many writers express the character’s backstory before they get to the plot. Good writers will go back and cut that stuff out and get right to the plot. The character’s backstory stays with them—it’s in their DNA.”
Adam Chromy, Movable Type Management

“I’m turned off when a writer feels the need to fill in all the backstory before starting the story; a story that opens on the protagonist’s mental reflection of their situation is a red flag.”
Stephany Evans, FinePrint Literary Management

“One of the biggest problems is the ‘information dump’ in the first few pages, where the author is trying to tell us everything we supposedly need to know to understand the story. Getting to know characters in a story is like getting to know people in real life. You find out their personality and details of their life over time.”
Rachelle Gardner, Books & Such Literary

GIVEAWAY: I am very excited to again give away a free book to a random commenter. The winner can choose either CREATE YOUR WRITER PLATFORM or the 2013 GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS. Commenters must live in the US/Canada; comment within one week to win. Good luck! (Update: Anita Hayes won.)

 Have you read any story beginnings that didn’t sit well with you? We’d love to hear about it in comments!

 

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About Chuck Sambuchino

Chuck Sambuchino is a freelance editor of query letters, synopses, book proposals, and manuscripts. As an editor for Writer's Digest Books, he edits the GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS and the CHILDREN'S WRITER'S & ILLUSTRATOR'S MARKET. His Guide to Literary Agents Blog is one of the largest blogs in publishing. His own books include the bestselling humor book, HOW TO SURVIVE A GARDEN GNOME ATTACK, which was optioned by Sony Pictures, as well as the writing guide, CREATE YOUR WRITER PLATFORM. Connect with Chuck on Twitter or at his website.

Comments

  1. says

    Oh my word what a helpful article. I am afraid I have been guilty of this a couple of times. I am going to print this and put these tips next to my computer to keep it fresh in my mind as I write. Thanks a bunch!

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  2. Robert says

    Guilty of a few of these personally. This list makes all the chapter one cliches seem so obvious in hindsight.

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  3. Robert Mandel says

    Like a lot of things in life, sometimes less really is more. Learning how to be concise and get right to the point and NOT falling into the novice writer’s trap of falling in love with your ‘voice’ IS a lesson that can only be learned from listening to your peers and agents and editors who’ve been there and done that…

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  4. says

    Good post – thanks for the tips.

    Interestingly, one of my crit partners told me I needed to add backstory about my main character. It was my first fiction, and I couldn’t figure out where to put it, so it went into the first chapter.

    I didn’t like it at the time, I wanted the story to start with more immediate action. Fortunately so far only one reviewer has made mention of it. I still don’t like it there, but I’m too busy writing more fiction to worry about editing it at this point.

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  5. says

    Mostly good advice…Maybe someone should tell Clive Cussler (he of over 120,000,000 books sold) it’s not a good idea to use a prologue. Just tell the damn story.

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  6. Jenn says

    Great post. I was just commenting to a friend regarding the struggles of striking the proper balance between exposition and revealing details. That and front-loading character sketches.

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  7. says

    I always look forward to reading these posts, and this one was great. It did, however, inspire me to craft a quick first chapter which contains as many of the ‘no’no’s as I could muster. Here for your enjoyment:

    PET PEEVES
    A Cautionary Tale
    By Keith W. Willis

    PROLOGUE
    I awoke groggy, and with that taste in my mouth that told me I’d done things the night before I ought to have known better. The sun that had risen into the bird-filled early morning sky sent its gentle light filtering in through the tattered curtains, illumining a bevy of golden motes that were dancing happy tarantellas across the scarred wood floor for the entertainment of a particularly large collection of dust-bunnies.

    I tried to blink away the headache that was clamoring for attention. The headache, I decided, could only be the result of a raging hangover. The strange man lying next to me could only be the result of a particularly bad decision made sometime after that fourth margarita. Or maybe the seventh. At some point, you just forget to keep score.

    I regarded him with a jaundiced eye. He was naked as the day he was born. Although, I had to admit, much better developed. Even to my bleary vision his body was like that of some Greek god. Not one of the weird ones with tentacles or anything, but one of the hot ones with a… well, never mind. You get the idea. I couldn’t see his eyes, since they were closed, but I had a feeling they would be the blue of a September sky, but without the clouds, unless he had cataracts. His hair was black and sleek, like what you’d expect to see on a leopard as it pounced out of its ambush and ripped out your lungs.

    But his buzz-saw-like snores did nothing whatsoever to help the hangover. He snorked again, a good loud one this time. I winced at the sound, and then winced again at the pain that the initial wincing had brought on. My eyes tried to climb back into the nice dark part in back of my brain, but the brain wasn’t having any of it, and ordered them back out there and on the job. They crossed in petulant rebellion, but reluctantly complied. I tried to make nice by raking the sand that was trying to crust over them into neat geometric piles. It wasn’t appreciated.

    The guy in the bed snored again. I considered strangulation, but determined that this course might be a bit precipitous. So I pondered stuffing the pair of underwear—his, not mine, he might have enjoyed that too much—that I spotted on the floor into his mouth, in hopes that it might abate the noise somewhat. At least until I could gather enough courage to arise from the bed like Venus from her shell and go in search of Tylenol and coffee. Fortunately for him, whoever he was, he rolled over and presented me with a view of a fairly nice ass. He also stopped snoring, if only for the moment. I figured I could let him live, at least a little longer.

    So I rose and began my quest for the talismans—talismen? ah,whatever—that would enable me to conquer whatever it was that this day had brought. I took stock mentally as I fought for balance, and found the offerings somewhat wanting. A strange man in my bed; a doozy of a hangover; and a decided lack of clothing for the parties of both parts seemed to be the key ingredients. I wasn’t sanguine about any of them.

    Oh, sorry. I should backtrack a bit. My name is Clemmy Ross. Clemmy , short for Clytemnestra, and don’t even go there. It’s one of my pet peeves. I can’t help it if my parents were both mythology buffs. Nuts, actually, but I try to be charitable, even if they did saddle me with a jaw-cracker of a name. The full moniker is Clytemnestra Aphrodite Ross. And let me tell you, it’s a bitch signing Christmas cards with that. I thought about getting it changed legally, but it would have killed my mother. So I avoid getting writer’s cramp by just scrawling C.A. Ross, or Clemmy if it’s a close friend.

    Which the guy in the bed wasn’t. Well, maybe he was now, but until last night I’d never seen him before. And I couldn’t say I wanted to see more of him. There wasn’t any more that I hadn’t already seen. Relegating this fact to the dust-bin of whatever’s—did I mention that my head hurt? —I continued on my quest.

    Stumbling into the bathroom I opened the medicine cabinet and pawed through the contents until I found the bottle of life-restoring Tylenol extra strength. I popped four—this was no time for half measures. I felt them descend into the pit, chased by the wobbly Dixie-cup of water, tumbling into the churning acid of last night’s remnants. They seemed to consider retracing their steps back up the esophagus, pursued by the acid contents of my stomach like a convict chased by the hounds of hell. I told them firmly to stay put and get busy on the headache. They seemed to sigh resignedly and got down to it.

    I wandered back out into the bedroom, wondering where I’d managed to lose the red lacy Victoria’s Secret tangas I’d been wearing when I’d left the apartment last night. What? Oh, no, that wasn’t all I’d been wearing. They were quite covered, thank you, by a pair of sleek black leather pants—also MIA. I’d also been wearing a semi-sheer black silk cami over an equally lacy red push-up bra. Ok, I’ll confess, at age thirty-six my boobs need just a bit of help to appear quite as perky as I’d like them. Not much, but hey, it pays to advertise, right? And this isn’t false advertising. Just… enhanced advertising.

    Where was I before I got onto the subject of boobs? Oh, right—looking for coffee. I staggered into the kitchen. The pot I’d made the day before was still sitting on the Mr. Coffee, although Mr. C. had thoughtfully turned himself off. Hopefully a long time ago. I poured the old stuff out in the sink, praying it wouldn’t eat through the porcelain this time. I like my coffee strong, okay?
    Uncovering the bag of Green Mountain Dark Roast from behind a concealing box of three-day-old Chinese takeaway, I loaded up the machine that was going to transfuse life back into my body and pressed the button. Nothing happened for a moment and I glared at it. Then with a grouchy ‘whoomph’ and a surge of air, things started percolating.

    I breathed a silent prayer of thanks and went on a search and rescue mission for my clothes. I found the cami in my tiny foyer, and my pants draped over the back of the couch. My bra was hanging from a blade of the ceiling fan, and my panties were dangling from the bedroom doorknob.

    Whoa! What had gone on in here last night? I wasn’t really sure I wanted to know, and equally wasn’t sure I could afford to not find out. Whatever had happened, Mr. Mystery in the bedroom appeared to have struck it quite lucky. I peeked into the bedroom again, just to make sure he was still there and hadn’t been some figment of a hung-over imagination. And yes, there he was, in living Technicolor. He was lying on his back now, and I decided he wasn’t the only one who had struck it lucky. Wow! If Michelangelo had done this guy, he would have needed a whole tree’s worth of fig leaves…

    I tore my eyes away from the scenery, found my fluffy purple robe hanging on its hook on the back of the bedroom door, and shrugged into it. I slowly fastened the tie around me, as vague memories of last night tried to edge their way into my consciousness. I wasn’t sure I was ready for them yet.

    I was ready for coffee, however. The aroma from the Mr. Coffee was finally filtering through my fog, and I followed it back to the kitchen. All my mugs were in the sink, but I was in a hurry so I just rinsed one out and poured the elixir of life. No milk, no sugar, just pure unadulterated jet fuel. I sent the first consignment down to cavort with the Tylenol and sighed happily. I was going to live.

    Then I found that I wasn’t. The mystery hunk from the bed appeared in the doorway to the kitchen. He was still delightfully naked. But he was holding a gun.

    It wasn’t huge, as guns go, I guess. I’m not real conversant with firearms, except for what I’ve seen on TV. But it certainly looked big enough to me. The barrel was pointed at my head, and from where I stood it looked like a subway train could have fit in there.

    I was so startled, confused and befuddled that I couldn’t’ even speak. I just kind of gurgled at him. He smiled at me, said quite distinctly “Sorry, Clemmy” and pulled the trigger.
    I screamed as I watched the bullet. It appeared to be moving in slow motion, and my eyes crossed as I tracked it. I was still screaming when I woke up, sweating and shaking, in my lonely bed.

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  8. says

    I’m happy to say my first novel features none of these flaws. That’s not to say a good agent/editor couldn’t find something else for me to fix, but with big stuff like these items out of the way, I’d simply be fine-tuning rather than re-learning the entire process of writing a full-length novel. That’s gratifying.

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  9. Kelsey says

    I liked reading direct quotes from agents instead of a list. Nice change. I’ve been annoyed by some of these issues in other people’s work (usually not published), but haven’t given then much thought in my own writing. What’s that saying about calling the kettle black? Thanks for the article!

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  10. says

    I just stared one where the first scene is an attack. “Hold her down”… Ends with someone drugging her, then she is waking up, expecting pain, and moves right into consensual sex. Okay, the first part was a nightmare memory thing, I think, but that is a massive switching of gears to go through in the first two pages of the novel. I couldn’t keep reading.

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  11. Sarah Wolf says

    Some of these tips are what my critique group has been teaching another beginner novelist and me over the past few months. It’s taking a lot of practice to balance the “too much info” versus “too little” in the first chapter.

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  12. Caryl Cain says

    I rewrote my first chapter several times before finally deciding to save it for last when I realized I’d never get the rest done if I kept on. I think having the whole story down will allow me to see exactly the right way to begin.

    Wonderful post! Thanks!

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  13. Kevin Anslow says

    Thank you for providing a valuable collection of no nos from the reality of the literary professional’s weary coalface. But also, what a lot of whining and moaning! I don’t want to discount the value of being aware of common mistakes and pitfalls, but I think it would be also be fair to say that what the negative space presented in your article doesn’t tell you is that professional readers actually WANT to like a piece, particularly after wading through spades of truly awful work… and anyone who has been through a slush pile of fiction will confirm that most of it is just that. If the writing is good and the piece shapes up in general they will probably forgive more of these evils than not… well some probably not, but still. I realise you don’t mean to provide a comprehensive balanced appraisal of the entire subject in this article… it is a particular slice or slant. However, to play devil’s advocate, if you were able to avoid all these pitfalls you would either be a natural or already a pro. If you want to avoid all this then and are a novice you would likely have to hire a professional editor to shape you piece up, otherwise you might just have to send in what you have. If it’s not ready, or you are not at a stage where you are mature enough to work with to make it ready, looking a a shangri la picture perfect opening isn’t going to help much.

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  14. Krista says

    Well, it looks like it’s back to the drawing board! Thank you for the great information. I will deffinately be doing some revisions!

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  15. Aaron Ghering says

    The bottom line with character development is to make them as realistic as possible – unbelievable stories can be believable if the characters are…
    When developing characters do it in a believable manner. You do not sit down with people you meet in life and find out their entire back story before befriending them, nor do you slowly and meticulously study every physical detail of their person… So, why would you do this to a reader? Finally, as in real life your characters must have flaws. People relate to and will bond with characters who are human, just like us, warts and all.

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  16. says

    Loved this post!
    I think most writers are guilty of executing a bad beginning at one point or another. Probably even one that was listed here. I counted at least two that I’ve been convicted of.

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  17. says

    Writing advice articles written by well known writers all seem to say in some form or another “In order to write well, read.”

    You are all readers of copious material. I appreciate what you have to say, as readers…in order for us (and yourselves) to write better.

    Thank you. Any thoughts on short stories? Different pet peeves or same ones?

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  18. Kelly Sharpe says

    Wow! I thought my opening was pretty good, but I do have a few “thinking” paragraphs woven in, just to add a little backstory. She is thinking about the past to calm her nerves about the current situation.

    Thanks for the tips. I’ll be reconsidering Chapter 1.

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  19. Patrice says

    I am definitely saving this in my favorites. I am guilty of making some of these mistakes.

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  20. says

    I’m not an editor, but as a potential reader I usually put down anything that starts with the above transgressions. In particular, I have never really understood the minute descriptions of food and clothing some authors pile on.

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    • Gillian says

      I’m a beginning writer so this isn’t a critique, just an opinion and perhaps a concern for my own writing. Maybe some people feel the main character is the story, as opposed to being in the story.
      I know for me, I want them to see my character as clearly as I do, but I usually, I think, back off of too descriptive phrases. I think there is one I have to fix.

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  21. says

    I have seen agents comment that they like something that others do not. Most of these listed here are spot on, but some are a matter of taste (and if done well, it works).

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  22. Francisco Araiza Junior says

    A lot of this advise I needed. So thank you very much for all of this.

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  23. Adria Winsor says

    And the funny thing is, these are all easy traps to fall into. I’m glad that I’m not the only one.

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  24. Diana says

    specific examples, quotes, sources cited = useful info

    these are very common mistakes in any first draft

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  25. Jessie Morrison says

    Oops! I’m definitely guilty of several of these. Now would be a good time to revise my beginning.

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  26. Michael Quicho says

    Flawed! My mind swirls with self-incrimination put to me by the words spoken here. That infinitesimal part of my being cries out to quit and fling the laptop from the tallest mountain I can climb. But it is a weak and despised voice that holds no sway, not this time. The blood rushes to my eyes as I grit my teeth and angrily left-click the opening icon to my word processor. And I begin again . . .

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  27. Victoria Taylor says

    Great tips- seem obvious but whe we’re trying to move it all from our brains to the page, it’s too easy to fall into one of these traps. Thanks!

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  28. Jennifer Kreft says

    Interesting post. The Christian Novel contribution truly puzzles me. Are they inundated with books that begin with rape scenes? I’m kind of sad to see so many agents hating on prologues.

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  29. C. Linton says

    Sometimes we get so caught up in writing we forget to go back and check for the obvious no-no’s. This is a good reminder of what not to do. Thanks Chuck for compiling this.

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  30. says

    Right on time for me as I rework my novel. Oops, I do have a character with long flowing hair and eyes the color of a winter sky, but she’s the villain. sigh. back to work. Thanks for a great and insightful post.

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  31. Karilyn Rose says

    I’m always intrigued by what agents, editors, and publishers have to say about novice writing. I’ve found that I’m guilty of some of these peeves and am so grateful that I’ve come across such an enlightening post! Thank you for all the helpful advice on WriterUnboxed.com; the sit has really helped shape my story and sharpen my skill.

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  32. Shemeka Mitchell says

    I am guilty of a few of these. Especially the “information dump” which is in the first chapter of my current work. I now know that I need to revise that part. Thanks for the information! I’m new to writing, so these emails have been helpful. I agree with the purple prose, I skip over most of it when reading.

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  33. Charles Tramontana says

    The following two excerpts from story beginnings made me want to throw these novels against the wall.

    In The Chimera Vector, Nathan M. Farrugia wrote: “They jumped on the second-hand Honda 125 motorcycles they’d purchased yesterday and disappeared.”

    Would anybody read any more of that novel?

    Or of the following?

    “The full moon hovered above the dark forest like a graceful guardian, seeing everything that went on within the wooden monoliths.” From Legends of the Saloli: Vengeance and Mercy by Adam Bolander.

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  34. says

    Wow, great article and great advice. I am guilty of putting a prologue at the beginning of my second novel. I did that for the first one, but then realized that the story worked without the prologue, so I think the same may be true for this novel.
    I guess details in a prologue can generally go into the context of a later chapter, or they are irrelevant altogether.
    Thanks again, now I know what to change in my novels’ first chapters, and how to change them for the better.

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  35. says

    I laughed long and hard after reading this post. My first manuscript (which shall remain nameless to protect my dignity) will NEVER see the light of day.

    I think I broke every one of those rules… :)

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  36. Linda Heine says

    Thank you for this quickly stated and helpful list of editors’ chapter one pet peeves. I am on my fourth revision of the first novel I am attempting to publish, and I thought perhaps my chapter one ( which I love, naturally) was an issue. Although I didn’t see me in this list, it did tell me I was right. Revise chapter one.

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  37. says

    Helpful first chapter insights from agents. Spent most of my day reading articles in my Writer’s Digest August 2011–a little behind to say the least! Between the Writer’s Digest “Your Ultimate Revision Guide” and this post, my head’s rumbling with revision ideas. Time to punch up the action in the first chapter of my novel and push forward. Thanks!

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  38. says

    Thanks for getting the great tips out there for people that are starting out.

    That first chapter is the most important, because if you don’t catch them there then you have lost them.

    In one book, I have written the first chapter twelve times and still don’t like it. There were two that were almost there. I think for the thirteenth time I will combine those two and see how that flows.

    Thanks again for the article and the chance to win a book.

    John

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    • Laurie says

      John Poindexter,

      Just a thought about your twelve-times-rewritten Chapter 1… have you thought of canning it or moving it further into the book (or maybe even dissecting it and redistributing it)?

      OR… perhaps it’s time to write a totally different first chapter and see where that goes! The thirteenth rewrite could be the charm, or maybe the first twelve rewrites were trying to tell you something…

      Just a thought!

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  39. says

    This post slides in right on time. I’m tackling similar problems in my own writing, and I’ve ran across some of these in pieces I’ve critiqued for others. Thanks for the tips. I’m sharing your article with my writing community.

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  40. says

    Wow… I cringed through half of this article, and chuckled through the rest. Lots of bad habits of mine blatantly shot down here… especially the ‘laundry list’ description of a character’s appearance, I usually don’t begin with them, but when I get around to describing the character, I sometimes end up doing it.
    On a different note, I had previously feared that throwing the reader into the action and then slowly revealing to them what’s going on was a bad habit… But it seems that just the opposite is true, which makes me very happy.

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  41. Faye Newman says

    No website yet. Working on that. As I read agents’ pet peeves in first first chapters, I wondered if I have to re-write the whole blamed book, or if I can just re-write the chapter. I’m also wondering where I can fit in the info from my prologue, which began as a response to an agent. Silly idea, that. She’ll never see it again anyway.Maybe I’ll turn it into an article.

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  42. says

    A entertaining and very helpful read.

    After some great advise by a writer/editor, I think I’ve escaped practically all of these “peeves” in the three first chapters of my three manuscripts (two completed and one almost so) – except in my very first I did start with “The golden moon, Alumni, slipped over the horizon, bathing the eastern sky and the land with an amber shimmer.” I was trying to introduce the setting/concept that there were 2 moons – but I really do need to rethink this.

    Somehow the first two chapters of my first manuscript has been the hardest two chapters to write out of all three! Still is.

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  43. says

    It’s encouraging to know that my first chapter passed all of these with flying colors. It makes me happy to know I’m on the right track. Now if I can ever get through the first edit.

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  44. R.G. Elkins says

    I loved this post – both for the things it showed me I’m doing and the things I’m not. Chuck always brings us the best advice and information on the publishing business.

    Thank you, Chuck, for making all of us better writers.

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  45. says

    Interesting post, Thanks!

    Another great reminder of the importance of what the James River Writers Conference has each year called First Page Critique [also known as ‘Simon Cowell / Idol’ depending on who our agents are]

    Also, a great reminder of how agents are people and different in their likes, dislikes, and peeves as everyone is.
    How important research is, as well as great first pages.

    Thanks.

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  46. says

    Thanks so much for collecting and posting these wonderful comments. As I read through, nodding, and asking, “Am I guilty of this one?”, I was pleased to come away with my manuscript mostly intact. Still, a reminder that good first chapters (and first pages, first paragraphs, first sentences) are tremendously important never hurts, and remembering to examine your manuscript critically, as a reader would, is a must. Thanks again for great posts that I always find useful.

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  47. Donna says

    I am very guilty of the laundry list descriptions and didn’t even realize it.

    I will work on that.

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  48. says

    Excellent advice, as always! Thanks, Chuck, and thanks, literary agents for taking time to do this. I think all these posts are starting to teach me something – for the first time I can say “not guilty” to any of the above :)

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  49. says

    This was a hilarious and sadly true for some stories I’ve read… Makes me think that the author of some of the more obvious bad beginning errors did not have anyone read their opening and tell them straight about what was wrong. It’s called editing…

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  50. says

    Great post. I am totally with Kristin Nelson on the stranger in the bed scenario. It’s time to tango–and not in a good way–if there’s a strange man in my bed.

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  51. Mary Stein says

    Hi Chuck:

    Thank you for sharing the above inside information with everyone. I have some work to do on re-writing the open of one of my works in progress and feel rather re-assured about the open to another one. Looking forward to more useful tips.

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  52. says

    Great article – and the points seem reinforced by more than one credible professional!
    I appreciate the candid comments and agree that they are words to live by for any author seeking publication.
    Thanks to all for the enlightenment by sharing your pet peeves so honestly.

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  53. Melinda Youmg says

    In defense of prologues, they can work if they propel the plot in Chapter 1. My usual gripe is the gulf between the beginning and when it reunites with the plot. It’s tricky, but a well done prologue can be a real bonus to a novel.

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  54. Wendy says

    Now I am even more aware of why perusing books in the search for my next ‘read’ there are many I just put back on the shelf.
    When writing, I always try to pretend I’m reading the opening words, paragraph for the first time.
    This list of what not to include in the first sentence, paragraph and chapter is excellent. Worth remembering.
    Thank you.

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  55. says

    I used to read a lot of John Saul when I was in high school & most of his books started with a prologue. I actually liked that. But his prologues were bits from the far past, sometimes colonial times, and then the actual story starts in present time.

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  56. says

    Thank you for writing this article. I found it very helpful to have an agents perspective and will keep everything in mind while writing my novel.

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  57. Betty Clemens says

    Great read for new writers. I am still rewriting my Chapter One, in hopes of avoiding all of the aforementioned. thanks!

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  58. Michelle Dupler says

    I’m guilty of the too-slow beginning and of writing too much exposition especially in an initial draft. These tips were an excellent reminder to just start the story.

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  59. says

    This is both hilarious and helpful for me as I’m working on the second book in my series. It’s crazy how easy it is to fall into one of the cliches!

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  60. Rhonda says

    What book have I read that didn’t sit well? MINE! That was my answer and then I see most everyone else answers the same. Learning is the fun of writing — learning how to go from writing back story and description galore to putting the reader in the heart of the action and engaging them from paragraph one. Our goal, our nemisis, and our redemption when we get it right.

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  61. Sarah Steele says

    Whoo! None of these no-nos apply to my current ms!!! Also I want to win things!!!

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  62. says

    Setting the stage in the first chapter is a Denzien’s folly. How much does the reader need to know? Throw the reader to the wolves and let her figure it all out on their own.
    That’s what leads us in and keeps us turning pages.
    Well done, writerunboxed.

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  63. Amy Talbot says

    The opening line in Fredrick Forsyth’s ‘Fist of God’ reads: The man with ten minutes to live was laughing, which is brilliant – memorable, even. Can’t say the same for the character, who did die, although it took a few pages to kick him out of the novel.

    Just as well. Besides laughing before he died and flirting with a bunch of anonymous women, he didn’t feature in the novel.

    I felt cheated. Why should I care about him, hear about him, even, when he was a non-entity. I was annoyed at the author, and pre-disposed to dislike his novel. Consequently, I yawned my way through 1/4 of the book, then it went the way of that character.

    If I am going to care about a character, at least let him do something memorable, then die.

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  64. says

    Not just for writers- This is also a good list to help you spot a possible dud before wasting precious book reading hours on it.

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  65. Steve MC says

    I’m sure someone else said this in the 516 comments before me, but this was an [adjective] collection of [adjective] [adjective] advice.

    And in this case, all those adjectives are good!

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  66. says

    I just deleted my florid, glorious, eloquent first chapter. Thanks guys for tossing my dreams into the dung heap.

    One frustrating thing about this is the hyper-focus on the first chapter when a book is best judged on how it performs cover to cover. I realize that agents don’t have time to read entire books, let alone all of the sample chapters they get, but isn’t there a better way? I realize that some readers will toss a book aside if the first chapter sucks, but I don’t think that’s necessarily an intelligent way to make a representation or publication decision.

    Why not ask the author for her “best” chapter and a chapter outline?

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  67. says

    I love this article! I’ve seen all these openings in various books, and each and every one has annoyed me. I’ve managed to avoid them so far, mostly because I like to open just as things are happening, and let the backstory take care of itself.

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  68. Tammie Olaker says

    As a self-confessed prologue junkie, I was very interested to read this. I go back and rewrite the first sentence of the first chapter a million times, but then there’s that prologue. I’ll try without it when I do my rewrite this time and see how that goes. Thanks for that, even though, interestingly enough, I’ve managed to avoid at least most of the other problem situations.

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  69. says

    I’ve rewritten chapter one of my manuscript countless times. It bears zero resemblance to the first draft, and that’s a good thing. Now that I’ve read this informative post, it’s time to look at chapter one again with an even more critical eye.

    If I don’t get it right, no one will ever read chapter two. So thanks, Chuck.

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  70. Adam Sears says

    This is great. If there’s anyone qualified to give tips about opening chapters, it would have to be the agents who read them first.

    I would like to point out, though, that almost every one of these tips could be ignored, so long as reader interest can be maintained. Of course, it requires skill to break these “rules” with enough finesse to achieve such reader interest. But for the beginner, these are better when followed.

    It looks like I am just one among many first-time novelists trying to get my book off the ground. Good luck to everyone.

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  71. Alison says

    Thanks for these comments from the experts, they’re very helpful to the novelist who has yet to be published. But one thing I’ve noticed is that while they’re true for first novels, established writers seem to be able to break these rules with impunity — presumably because once their name is known, they don’t have to make the same effort with the first 5 pages. In particular I’ve been surprised at how much description and scene-setting established writers can get away with in the first couple of pages.

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    • Susan McNerney says

      I agree-this month I’m reading Isabel Allende’s ya novel the beasts of the amazon (Spanish version) and on page 2 the main character wakes up to an alarm clock, another no no we hear about a lot. Maybe it’s not so cliche in Spanish…but likely as not, she can just get away with it.

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  72. says

    I have only been writing a few years. But I know its what I want to do. I do a lot of reading. A story I wrote for a school through the mail. They complemented me. But I wasnt able to continue. I didnt stop wtiting. I actually entered a contest. When I rewrote the same stoty,needed more words, it improved greatly. I take to heart all the tips I read. Ive taken to heart your post as well. Thank you.

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  73. says

    Awesome comments. I love reading what agents don’t like from first chapters because they are so hard to get right.

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  74. Juliana Ashe says

    Chuck, thank you for the opportunity to read these great tips from Agents and comment here.
    I find it interesting how many things are mentioned over and over by agents regarding manuscripts, queries and synopsis. One can have all the ‘How-to’ books in the world, go to endless seminars, and listen to published authors, but words are just words on a page until they are applied. Yet it seems quite often, agents observe writers kicking the same old ‘stupid’ dog wondering why it doesn’t respond. Relentlessly hoping, wishing, wanting, praying, WITHOUT the CONSTANT APPLICATION of how to become better, just keeps us in the same old lazy patterns with the same old results.
    I have not been published yet, though I have spent 10 years preparing for the time when it will happen. I have written my manuscript over and over, polished, edited myself more times than I can count and had it edited by 3 others. When I first wrote my novel I thought it was fantastic; Writing again I realized the first 10 sucked…by the hundredth edit…I say o.k. I think I’ve got something here…though I know it will still have to be edited and revised by a professional.
    When I started writing seriously, 10 years ago I knew nothing of editing. Reading everything I could get my hands on and applying myself makes me know, that as it is on any path…if you stay on that path you will get to where that path leads. One day, I will truly be proud to call myself an author…but like magic…it comes with a price; constant commitment and the willingness to learn and apply.

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  75. Jo O'Connor says

    I read a romance novel (several books into the series) where the main character and her yet unknown “mate” came across each other and had sex a chapter and half into the book (14 1/3 pages to be exact). I’ll never forget that book. It was over before page 15; fastest read ever.

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  76. says

    I agree with a commenter above that pros can get away with all these “don’ts” with impunity. And I’m sure that at the same time it’s a good list of things that agents are tired of. However, what I would say to everyone is that a good story is a good story, and any agent who finds a good story will choose it and defend it, even if someone else points out one of the above errors that it has. Good luck to all the writers — and agents!!

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  77. Melanie says

    Thanks for sharing these. Very helpful to hear from agents on things the like/dislike. Most have been reading manuscripts for years and have a good idea of what works. I’ve always found the first chapter to be difficult. It’s important to set the stage without giving away too much.

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  78. Rebecca Wasmer says

    I’m so glad that I read this. I’ve recently figured out which of my many novels I have had sitting around that I really want to work on and get it going. Thank you for the advice from the experts! (:

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  79. Jennifer Joseph says

    Info dumps are a pet peeve of mine. And it seems that most who do them just want the chance to describe how gorgeous their main character is. Boring.

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  80. Bill Hall says

    Sometimes knowing what NOT to do is just as helpful as knowing what to do. Thanks for the helpful guidance.

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  81. Nancy says

    Excellent! I especially liked the quote about the reader getting to know the character like they would in real life. I’ll be clipping this article. Thanks!

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  82. says

    Good post, Chuck. I’ll add one more tip: It isn’t enough to start a story with conflict. It has to be a conflict that can’t easily be solved. So if you’re not ready to introduce the main conflict of the novel in the first sentence, then introduce another conflict that will carry through the novel. For instance, in a romance, if you don’t start with the first encounter between the hero and heroine, you could start with the heroine’s well-meaning mother trying to set her up on a blind date. (Except don’t do that, specifically, because it’s been done to death.)

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  83. says

    Thanks for a great article. I will look over each one of those comments and double-check my manuscripts in the future. Not to mention, hit up the agents you’ve listed. I did include a few on my website as a teaser with a link to your page if they want to read the full article. It was that good to me!
    Thanks again, Chuck. Your blogs are always informative.

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  84. Pam Long says

    As always, you seem to know exactly what I need to be working on and you focus on that very thing! (Are you peeking?) Chuck, thank you SO much for these articles. I am also sharing these “pearls” with my writing guild. They are keepers, for certain! Thanks again!

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  85. Kathleen Edwards says

    Oh, I especially like the advice about the first chapter containing too much telling vs. showing. I’ll have to re-read my first chapter and keep that in mind. Thanks for a great article!

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  86. Mel Jenkins says

    HEY Chuck,

    Great article. I feel its more important to know what an agent hates than likes. Since what they like/want could be such a broad variation in each genre, its much more helpful to start with what not to do. I’m printing the article as a vital reference tool. Good looking out Chuck!

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  87. A M Perkins says

    Women finding a strange man in their room attractive? Good lord. I haven’t read anything like that, but would certainly stop reading if I did.

    I read a book with a prologue recently – only I didn’t realize it had one. I inadvertently skipped it, started the novel, and loved it.

    Only after I finished did I see the prologue.

    Seriously, it was such a boring backstory/info dump (which added nothing that I didn’t figure out over the course of the novel), that – had I read it – I wouldn’t have bothered to read the rest of the book.

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    • says

      That’s a great insight into the backstory information dump. I think it’s valuable to the writer to get that all out, but it’s usually not interesting to the reader.

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    • Juliana Ashe says

      Have to comment on Lesely McDaniel’s post. Brilliant-love it, said what I said without all the hoo ha! Totally loved A M Perkin’s post as well…yeah, backstory dump in prologue which had he read it, he would not have read the book. Says a lot for considering one’s readers ‘very intelligent, instead of thinking we have to take them by the hand to go down all the dark alleys…or magical kingdoms, whatever the case may be.
      Thanks guys!

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  88. A. T. Elle says

    I am amazed at how many times I hear the same thing over and over again on what not to do from editors. I guess good writing is always good writing and bad writing just bad. Great info!

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  89. says

    Thanks so much for feeding me with a double decker of information! So often you hit on a site that meanders and lolly-gags, dragging you along just before asking you to insert a quarter. BANG! I got it all here!

    I was led here by a fellow blogger of SEEJANEWRITE and am so grateful. I have been reading THE FIRE IN FICTION which I see in your sidebar. This site is just what I needed to feel better about all of the tweaking I have been doing to my novel in progress.

    Do any of your experts perhaps feel open to invite a first chapter from a southern stranger? I would be so brave to let you tear it apart if you so desire.

    Grateful for any torture you might fling my way.

    Allison Adams

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  90. Gerardo Serrano says

    Only William Burroughs can publish “Naked Lunch”, if you aren’t, the publishers would not even read it.

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  91. Diana says

    I wonder about starting with a flashback—-actually a scene from the middle of the story. Then have Chapter One go back in time to lead up to that point. Is that an overused hook?

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    • says

      Flashbacks are difficult. Do not attempt unless you’ve graduated from “not-published-so-much” to “published-a-lot” and “people-love-my-stuff”.

      There is a scene in Funny Farm (old Chevy Chase movie) about a writer who moved to the country to pump out his Great American Novel. His wife critiques his efforts in this way… “There are four flashbacks in the first chapter alone!”

      They are confusing, can be contrived and are generally scary, hairy, pinback turns on the road to good writing.

      Just don’t.

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  92. says

    Several of these seem contradictory (“don’t start with a battle scene when I don’t know why I should care about the characters!” vs. pleas to get right into the plot). In itself, helpful–although there are good and bad ways to open, even literary agents have preferences. That’s why it’s an art!

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  93. says

    However, prologues do have a proper place if they serve a purpose. For example, there is a prolog and an epilog in each of my series because they are a framing device for the main storyline. It serves the same purpose as, for example, the framing narration around “How I Met Your Mother,” (or, the way I see it, a set of Russian nesting dolls).

    None of these suggestions are Absolutely Positively Never Ever Do This I Mean It but honestly, they’ve been done SO often, and often SO badly, that if you do decide to use one of them, you’d better do it SO well that the other times it’s failed drop right off the radar.

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  94. says

    Hi, I have +1’d the post on which I found this link, shared it on Twitter (and thus Facebook, as my accounts are linked) and thought that the advice given was fabulous. I discovered this blog a while ago, but don’t comment here although I am today in hopes of being selected to win! *crossing my fingers*

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  95. Lori Owen says

    Interesting. I got a lot of information especially about writing the first chapter.

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  96. Michelle says

    These are so spot on, all the “donts” listed are the things that make me ditch a book and move on as a reader. If I am going to invest hours and hours of my life reading your book, you are gonna have to really grab me in that first chapter.
    I usually always read that first chapter before I plunk down my hard earned cash, either on amazon previews or in the bookstore.
    And as a wannabe novelist I try keep that in mind as I write. HOWEVER.
    There have been times when the first chapter of a book was great, intriguing character, great setup, hook well and truly sunk, but then, by chapter three, or four, or six or seven, its all just faded away. It’s like the author got bored, or lost, or something.
    That’s my pet peeve. Drives me nuts.

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  97. says

    I don’t live anywhere valid for the competition but I just needed to comment out of sheer pleasure. The third is my top pet peeve. I love Sci Fi but nothing turns me off like endless sceneries descriptions. Also the back story that has nothing to do with the actual story. Like a character seeing a story inside the story in his story….Yea.

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  98. says

    I once heard that a writer’s first chapter is often “clearing their throat”. Meaning, what you originally write as your chapter one should be rewritten. You are simply “clearing your throat” to get going. I find this to be so true!

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Trackbacks

  1. […] The women of Writer Unboxed (Therese and Kathy) posted a lengthy article written by Chuck Sambuccino this week and it rocks! The piece provides specifics about what not to do when you’re starting a novel. Articles and posts describing what TO do in order to become successful in our writing endeavors are plentiful, but I haven’t read as many telling us what NOT to do. At least not many as descriptive and straight forward as this one. Here’s the link: What NOT to Do When Beginning Your Novel […]

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